Friday, October 31, 2014

De Mansers & Daughter - Welcome to the firm

There's been cause for celebration in our family this term because the middle child has started her first full time job. A child's financial independence is always an exciting time for parents but this one is special. Not only has Sophie landed a job - she has joined the family business and become a teacher! And for this term, she is working in our school, with us!

This was the child who swore black and blue, despite her obvious aptitude for teaching, that this was a job she would NEVER do. Bought up in a household with two teachers, she always had a very realistic view of what life at the chalkface is like. She knew about the long hours, the lack of recognition, the absolute certainty that she would never be rich on a teacher's wage. She knew that many times the needs of other peoples' kids had come before her own and she swore not to take on that sort of commitment herself. When she finished school with a score that put her in the top 2% of the state, she had the choice of any course she wanted, so off she went to make a million dollars in the media industry.

And then, suddenly, she grew up and realized that life is not all about making money. That a life fulfilled is one that makes a difference to the world and one way you can contribute to a better planet is by creating better people. She remembered that whether by nurture or nature, she was already a great teacher and so off she went to get another degree.

And now, not only has she joined 'the' family business, she's teaching in my old classroom! In the same classroom that I taught her. A room that still has her rainbow fish art work on the wall from year 5 and 2 bookshelves cluttered with teaching memorabilia from my 16 years at the school. 

 This is a little confronting for me. My teacher mortality radar just switched into panic mode. Sophie is teaching the kids of kids I taught before she was even thought of. She has decades of a brilliant teaching career in front of her and I have....... not so many. I'm being replaced by a newer, shinier, albeit less experienced but with the potential to be a much better version of myself! She's tidied the shelves, thrown out most of my disorganised rubble and, for the next term, she's going to be working from the same desk on which she once left her mother cute notes!

I'm brimming with pride at her professionalism and enthusiasm. I love the fact that her teaching style is so like mine - she's already raising an authoritarian eyebrow with flair - and that she's at work early so the day is organized and she's willing to adapt to any task, with any class because she knows that she's a teacher of students, not subjects. But, I'm also a little afraid for her.

Teaching is a tough gig and it's getting tougher by the year.  I've spent countless nights looking after sick kids on camp, countless dollars providing materials and food and experiences for kids who couldn't afford them. In my 35 years in the classroom, I've been sworn at, spat on and kicked. I've had chairs thrown at me and I've been abused on the phone and in my own home by parents who haven't liked me calling their children to task over minor or major misdemeanours. I've counseled and cajoled, pleaded and pushed kids to get their work done, hand their homework in, learn their lines, do their best. I've cleaned up tears and urine and faeces and more vomit than you can imagine (Did you know it's impossible to get all the vomit out of the eyelets of leather boat shoes?). I've written countless referrals to doctors and lawyers and human services looking for help for kids with special needs. Even after they've left school, I've written glowing references and sourced scholarships and work placements. I've survived 6 major curriculum changes driven by politicians who don't have the faintest idea about education and on top of that I've taught fire safety, road safety, cyber safety and safe sex. There are days when I despair and wonder if I wouldn't be better off in a child free, 9-5, leave your work at work sort of job. 

Do I really want this lifestyle for my own child? 

You bet! Because even on the worst days, there's the happy drawer (see the next paragraph) and the absolute confidence that no matter what, you've done your best to improve the outcomes for the kids you teach and surely some of that care and love has rubbed off on them.

So, on World Teachers' Day, here's a little indirect advice to our newest teaching graduate and all her cohort of eager, enthusiastic young teachers. Hindsight is valuable and there's some lessons in teaching that you don't have to discover on your own!

1. Leave your ego at the door. Kids are difficult and discerning customers. If you do your job properly you become invested in the kids you teach. They become part of your life. As a class teacher you often spend more time with them than their parents do but you are not and never will be their parents. To be a good teacher you need an ego that is robust enough to let you think you can teach anyone, anything but you must also be egoless enough to know that you'll rarely be credited for the success. Occasionally, you will come across a grateful child, a thankful parent. Their gratitude will feel like sunshine. Drink the wine they give you, (the real gems will know that you like red wine, not white; dark chocolate not milk), and keep their thank you notes. Put them in a 'happy drawer' and whenever you have a really bad day, get them out for another read and let their words wash over you. One day these kids will become engineers and nurses and doctors and lawyers and electricians. Some of the best will become teachers. Watch their progress on LinkedIn and bask in their success from afar.

2. Keep your cards close to your chest. If you think some of the kids are tough, wait till you meet their parents. The car park mafia are your greatest enemy. In the carpark waiting for pick up, at cricket training or netball on Saturdays, at dinner parties, in the supermarket, on Facebook, these are the places where teachers reputations are built or destroyed. All parents were once school students and some of them feel this gives them absolute knowledge of what is right and wrong with the education system and your teaching. If you continue to teach in the country, there is no escape from this. Be careful how much of yourself you divulge in the first few years. Kids have a wonderful ability to misinterpret and put their own perspective on your words before they repeat them at home. For this same reason, also be wary of the stories they tell you about their parents!
Of course, parents will also be your best ally. When parents and teachers work together and support each other, kids thrive and you will come across many wonderful parents. You'll learn to tell the difference between the snakes and the champions but it will take you awhile. After 35 yrs, I still get it wrong sometimes. In the meantime, be polite, be fair; even in the face of irrational anger or accusation, respond always with calm logic and good pedagogy. Just like you, parents just want what's best for their child.

3. Get involved. This is not news to you. Some of the richest learning, for students and teachers, happens outside the classroom. Camps, productions, sport, school events, shared interests; in these environments you really get to know your students and can teach them lessons that relate to their present and future lives. Embrace every opportunity to share extra curricula experiences. 
You already know that not all teachers are created equal and you will come across the 9-3.30, 'don't let the door hit you on the way out' variety. This will frustrate you but it's the way of the world. Every organization has a blend of those who do a lot and those who don't do much. These teachers have empty happy drawers. Model innovative and inspiring practice and sometimes others will follow.

4. Practise your mask. Teachers are always 'on'. The kids don't care that you had a busy weekend, that your dog died, that you've had a fight with your partner. They need a smiling face, an enthusiastic voice and an engaging activity. The classroom is a performance space and you have to be able to transform character in a blink. At any given time you'll need to be a psychologist, nurse, confidante, bus driver, cook. Don't be afraid to dress up, get dirty, play games and laugh. The kids will still know you're the boss when you're wearing a dinosaur onesie.

5. Be kind. As Maya Angelou once said, 'They may not remember what you taught them but they will remember how you made them feel'. Teaching is an emotional business. It's hard to deal restoratively with a kid who's just sworn at you, wrecked your lesson and distracted everyone else but staying calm and dealing with the behaviour rather than the child is vital. Be kind, be compassionate, give authentic feedback and suggestions for improvement. Remember that for some kids, school is the safest place they know. Start each class afresh and never hold a grudge. Even the worst behaved child might surprise you one day.

Keep learning; never stop. Build networks with your friends, your colleagues, online. Read, discuss, think, reflect. Enjoy.

Welcome to the firm Sophie. Happy World Teachers' Day.